I like to build things and I like to challenge myself so back in 2012 I decided to build a Fender Stratocaster-style guitar from parts. Here’s the story behind it.
Leo Fender wasn’t a guitar builder by trade, he was an electronics technician who started off in the radio repair business. But perhaps more importantly, he understood how to design something to make it easy to manufacture. His first electric guitar, the Broadcaster, was essentially a neck bolted to a slab of wood in the basic shape of a guitar. His second model, the Stratocaster, continued this basic design but with more pickups and more versatile controls.
Key to the manufacture of these guitars is the bolt-on neck. Rather than the traditional “set neck” used by guitar builders since the beginning, Leo’s designs attached to the body with no glue or elaborate fitting required. It made them easy to assemble by factory workers rather than by highly-skilled luthiers. The bodies did require some precision in that the pocket for the neck had to be carefully routed but that could be done by machines with good repeatability. Fender guitars became something you could assemble from interchangeable parts.
If something is capable of being assembled from parts, all you need to do is obtain those parts yourself and you can do the same as Fender. Thus began my project.
Getting The Parts
Fender has been building guitars since the late 1940s, a robust spare parts industry has grown up around it in the decades that have passed. You can find multiple sources from everything from necks and bodies to the screws. I didn’t want to spend too much so I chose a company called Guitar Fetish for the major parts: neck, body, pickups, tuners and bridge. I wanted a black body and a rosewood fingerboard and they had both for reasonable prices pre-finished. I bought a number of minor parts from a collection of other vendors.
I purchased the initial parts, the body, neck and tuners back in 2012. I immediately realized that attaching the neck to the body would require a tool I didn’t possess: a drill press for drilling precise holes. Add to that the neck wouldn’t actually fit in the pocket on the body. I stopped working and set things aside.
In the meantime I did purchase a book, How to Build Electric Guitars: The Complete Guide to Building and Setting Up Your Own Custom Guitar, which I should have done before I started. At least I now had a better idea of what I would need to do to actually finish the project.
Neck and Body
I finally broke down and purchased a drill press when Harbor Freight had a sale in March of 2014 (yes, almost two years later). It essentially took away my excuse for not continuing the project.
But before I could drill any holes I needed to address the issue with the neck not fitting into the pocket in the body. Because I don’t have great spray painting skills I chose a pre-finished body rather than one of bare wood. In retrospect this was a bad choice on my part. The finish was very hard and paint had gotten into the pocket and built up in spots. In the process of cleaning it up I ended up chipping the finish along the edges of the pocket. But eventually I could actually fit the neck in and black nail polish filled in the chips somewhat.
It still wasn’t quite right (see below) which resulted in me having to drill the holes into the neck twice. The first issue was it didn’t go far enough into the pocket with a gap and the bottom around the end of the neck. A bit more fitting was required and I filled the wrongly-drilled holes with epoxy wood filler. In the process, I actually broke a screw (the maple in the neck is hard wood) more than once necessitating the purchase of additional screws. But at last I had the neck installed.
The tuners should have been the easiest part, but of course they weren’t. The ferrules, the part that sits in the neck and surrounds the shaft the strings attach to wouldn’t fit the holes pre-drilled in the neck. There are two basic sizes used and the holes were too large for the ferrules, which are intended to be press-fit into them. So I bought ferrules designed to fit tuners for the smaller size into larger holes. Of course, these were too large for the holes. I have no idea how the neck ended up like this, but remember I was keeping expenditures in check. Luckily, I had a drill bit for the larger size from an earlier project so I drilled the holes to the new size and the new ferrules fit just fine.
Pickguard and Electronics
Here I made yet another mistake and bought a generic replacement pickguard. It lacked countersinking on the screw holes for the switch and pickups. I fixed the former but overlooked the latter.
The pickups are wound in the so-called “Texas” style (like Stevie Ray Vaughn’s), with the middle pickup reversed so that when it’s used in combination with the neck or bridge pickup (using a 5-way switch) it act like a humbucker of sorts. These also came from Guitar Fetish and are the middle of their pickup line. They fit fine and were easily wired up to the controls. I also lined the pickup cavities with foil but I didn’t connect them to ground.
Once wired, the pickguard was screwed to the top of the body and the output jack connected and also screwed in.
The bridge is a Wilkinson vintage-look tremolo model that I picked because it’s well-made and is better than vintage but isn’t a full Floyd Rose (which would require modifications to body and pickguard). I don’t use a tremolo so it’s mostly for looks but I wanted the option to use it which is why I didn’t go with a fixed bridge.
Following the advice in the book I aligned the bridge so that the lowest and highest strings were positioned correctly on the neck and over the right parts of the pickups. The tremolo block, which is in the back of the guitar was grounded to the output jack like everything else to minimize noise.
When I added the strings I discovered they made contact with the neck at around the 14th fret. Looking at pictures of Strats online I saw that the neck was deeper in the pocket than mine was. Off came the neck and I shaved down the back of the pocket. This eliminated the contact but the strings still buzzed a bit.
To deal with that I decided to see if adjusting the truss rod in the neck would help. Luckily, it did with just a minor adjustment. The string were clear the entire length of the neck when unfretted. Any additional buzz would be dealt with in the setup phase.
At this point, the guitar was playable but not complete. I added the strap buttons, locking models from Guitar Fetish, at the upper bout and bottom. I chose a locking model despite not playing with a strap much and will probably update my other guitars when I get a chance.
Next was the string tree which is attached to head of the neck and keeps the top two strings in place on the nut. This is necessitated by the design of the Strat neck (some even had two).
Last was the back plate over the tremolo hole. Strats load their strings from the back so this has to be carefully aligned so all the proper holes line up. It matches the pickguard as well.
Almost every guitar has to be setup once it leaves the factory to make it fit the player and deal with anything that might have shifted in transit. This involves setting string height, pickup to string distance and intonation.
String height is adjusted at the bridge. The height of the strings above the neck is called the action and every player has their idea of the correct value. You also need to make sure each string is at a similar height. Strat bridges usually require an Allen wrench and each string has two screws that must be set identically.
Each pickup has two screws that allow you to adjust their height over the pickguard which translates to the distance from the strings. Different pickup types work best at different distances and I followed the recommendations in the book.
Intonation refers to the ability of the guitar to play in tune regardless of where you play. In guitars, this is a function of overall string length and string diameter (gauge). This is also adjusted at the bridge. You basically tune the string with out fretting and check it at the octave position (12th fret). If it’s sharp or flat there you lengthen or shorten the string until it’s in tune. Some guitars, many acoustics for instance, don’t have adjustable bridges and require a luthier to modify the bridge to adjust for intonation. The Strat’s adjustability is another example of Leo Fender’s industrial design making a guitar cheaper and easier to build without a luthier required.
I never really played Strats much before this so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Compared to my Les Paul-style electric and my archtops it’s thinner and lighter overall. But I was pleasantly surprised with how well this sounds. It’s very different than my other electrics which are all equipped with humbuckers. I’ve found I like the two positions that add the middle pickup to either the neck or bridge pickups for most songs but the stinging response of the bridge pickup alone is also nice and useful for lead work.
All Things Considered
To be honest, I made some mistakes. Optimizing for cost meant I chose some parts that weren’t quite perfect, particularly the body and pickguard. Considering you can spend more than I did for everything on just the neck or body such compromises are to be expected. I would probably have fared better (and spent a little less) using an unfinished body despite my lack of painting skills. After all, you can always sand down paint issues. Considering how long it took, I might have finished sooner even with painting taking a while. Oh well.
Would I do this again? Probably not, to be honest. I did it partly to be able to say that I did and partly to get myself another guitar without spending all of the money at once. I have no intention of pursuing this as a business, either. One thing I might do, however, is upgrade various parts over time. Thanks to the basic Strat design this isn’t hard to do. The body is routed to allow different pickup configurations so I might replace the bridge pickup with a humbucker some day. Given how much I like the pickup as it is, this seems remote but it is possible.
I took pictures during the process. Here’s an album showing it from start to finish.